State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School


Richard Seager

by Kaci Fowler and Eve Solomon

Richard Seager, Earth Institute faculty member

Having grown up in Norwich, England, Earth Institute climate scientist and faculty member Richard Seager has experienced, “more weather than you would wish on anyone.” Seager spent much of his time outdoors with his family, cycling and hiking the hills of England and Scotland. These excursions helped spark Seager’s interest in the physical world around him. Seager and his brother were the first in their family to have the opportunity to pursue college degrees. While at Liverpool University, one of Seager’s undergraduate tutors was Ann Henderson-Sellers, a climate scientist. It was Henderson-Sellers who encouraged Seager to apply to graduate school and pursue a degree in climate science in the United States. Seager spent two years in the early 1990s pursuing postdoctoral studies at the University of Washington in Seattle, but he has studied and worked at Columbia University since then.

Seager is currently a Palisades Geophysical Institute/Lamont Research Professor at the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory. His recent work focuses on the mechanisms of persistent North American drought and its relation to tropical Pacific and Atlantic Ocean temperature variations. Seager has also researched medieval mega-droughts in the American West and the hydrological future of that region. He uses numerical models, observations and proxy reconstructions of past climates to understand the physical mechanisms responsible for climate variability and change on seasonal to glacial-interglacial timescales. He has a particular interest in how the variation of the tropical atmosphere-ocean system organizes climate on a global scale.

According to Seager, the American Southwest is likely to experience a condition of “permanent drought” similarly to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. “With some two million people displaced, the Dust Bowl was probably the worst environmental disaster in the nation’s history, even counting the more recent oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. It is a matter of simple thermodynamics that the region will face a considerable increase in aridity over the coming decade.”

Seager’s team analyzed nearly 49 projections of the region’s likely future climate, using 19 major computer climate models, and all but three scenarios concurred that drought conditions lie ahead. Seager is often invited to brief water managers throughout the region, including members of the California Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, which manages the Colorado River. “It’s a comparatively small part of my job,” he explains, “because I’m mainly focused on doing the science, but it is an important part. Much of our funding comes from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and a reasonable condition of the grants is that we do something to make sure the information gets out.”

As a member of the Earth Institute faculty, Seager benefits from collaborating with a group of colleagues working in related areas. “What I like is the fact that the Earth Institute has so many people working on the climate change and variability issue – from people like me doing the straight climate research to others working on how to build resilience to climate variability and change, to others working on how to prevent the worst climate change through, for example, carbon capture and storage. Whenever I am in that mix, conversations strike up that touch on areas of overlap, which, once opened, provide a wonderful flow of information between the areas of expertise. This sort of place, given its ability to tackle the climate problem in its entirety, could have a huge impact.”

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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